Restoration crews at the Air Mobility Command Museum are hard at work fixing up a Cold War-era Soviet cargo plane.
Right now, it’s not much more than a metal hulk covered in faded gray paint, but a Cold War-era Soviet cargo aircraft soon will take its place beside similar, American-built planes at the Air Mobility Command Museum on Dover Air Force Base. The Antonov AN-2 “Colt” was delivered the museum’s restoration hangar on Dec. 4, having been brought in from an airfield near Townsend, where it and a companion AN-2 had rested for a decade. The planes were donated by Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame member Dave Cannavo, a master mechanic who built a flying replica of Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” when he was 24. Cannavo obtained four AN-2s from a customer who had bought and then abandoned them. “They were delivered here and that’s where they sat,” Cannavo said. Eventually two of the non-flying aircraft carcasses were sold, but these two continued to sit, eventually becoming home to a number of birds, insects and small animals. Cannavo said an AMCM representative first called him approximately one year ago, but little else transpired for about seven months. Eventually a deal was struck and the two planes were soon on their way to Dover. Multinational workhorse The AN-2 is a biplane, and was the only large, metal biplane put into production after World War II. The type first flew in 1947, and, although specific numbers are not available, more than 5,000 are thought to have been built in the Soviet Union up until 1960. Production continued in Soviet satellite countries and the aircraft have been flown in Albania, China, Cuba, Mongolia, North Korea, Vietnam and more than 15 other countries. In all, at least 18,000 AN-2s were built up until the 1980s, and many still are in service The AN-2 has been favorably compared to the Douglas DC-3 and its military counterpart, the C-47, for its ability to perform any number of tasks, from flying personnel and cargo to remote villages inside Russia to crop spraying duties. They also have been adapted for passenger use and on some models the wheeled landing gear have been replaced with skis. But you won’t see too many of the Colts flying around U.S. airfields: they don’t meet Federal Aviation Administration standards and as such AN-2 owners in the United States only may fly them within a restricted radius of their home field. Just the same, they’re pretty tough airplanes -- big, slow, and simple, Cannavo noted. The AN-2’s top speed was only 160 mph and it normally cruised at about 115 mph. A gas-hog, the Colt had a range of only 525 miles, and could carry only about 1.5 tons of cargo. But that was enough, he said. “They’re from about the late 1920s to early 1930s, and as far as technology level is concerned, very simple,” Cannavo said. “Simple was the name of the game.” The Soviet way of building airplanes was similar to its approach when, during the space race, they had to find a writing instrument that would function in the weightlessness of space, Cannavo said. The Americans came up with an expensive pen that used pressurized air to force the ink to the writing end. The Soviets, he said, just gave their cosmonauts pencils. “They built their airplanes the same way,” he said. “We’d do a lot of engineering to save weight. They just built a bigger airplane.” “Their whole philosophy was to make it so someone who wouldn’t need a whole lot of specialized training could go up and fix it,” said Don Steenhagen, one the AMC Museum’s volunteer restoration crew members. The AN-2’s single power plant was a nine-cylinder radial engine, developed under license from the Wright R-1820, which also powered the DC-3. Curiously, even though the Soviets modified the engine from its original design, all specifications and tolerances are in standard measurements, while everything else on the aircraft is metric. Oddly, restoration crews have not found a single Phillips-head screw on the aircraft, Steenhagen said. Every screw on the aircraft is of the slotted variety, which has, he admits, made it harder to take the plane apart. Teamwork makes the difference Steenhagen and Konesey are but two of roughly a dozen people working on the AN-2 project. The restoration crew is a mixture of civilians and military vets from all branches of the service, those who served a single hitch 40 years ago, to those who made the military a lifelong career. They range from former infantrymen to senior officers, all working together with a common purpose. “If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t be out here,” Konesey said. “Everyone does everything, and no one says, ‘I don’t want to work on that.’ “They could, of course, but they don’t.” “It’s the kind of job where, if we get tired, we can just stop and take a break,” Steenhagen said. “We’re all out here because we love doing it.” The restoration crew is working to create a single, displayable aircraft out of the two hulks Cannavo donated. Parts that aren’t useable on the main aircraft hopefully can be pulled from the other one. Missing pieces either are fabricated in the Museum’s machine shop or can be had using the military’s tried-and-true system of swap and trade. “Right now, for example, we need a tail wheel,” Steenhagen said. “We’ve found someone out in California who has what we need, but he needs a landing gear. “Well, we’ve got two. That’s how you fix an airplane when you don’t have any money.” Working on something like the AN-2 can be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle working only with the blank side. “Because all the labels are Cyrillic, we don’t know what they say,” said volunteer Les Stiller. “We don’t know what’s written on the walls or on the parts.” “We also don’t have any operating or repair manuals,” chimed in retired Air Force navigator Dick Marks. In some respects, however, that doesn’t matter. These seasoned restorers know all airplanes have similar characteristics, no matter where they’re built or what language is on the instrument panel. “A plane is a plane and a pilot is a pilot,” Stiller noted. “All of the instrumentation is pretty intuitive for anyone who flies an airplane.” And while the United States and Soviet Union usually were at odds for more than 60 years, the eventual inclusion of the AN-2 at the AMC Museum is indicative of the fraternity shown by men who fly, regardless of the flag they fly under. That’s particularly true when it comes to the Museum, said Stiller. The AMCM is dedicated to preserving the history of airlift and air cargo, and that was one of the missions of the AN-2. “I don’t think it’s all that unusual for us to display another country’s airplane,” Stiller said. “To me, it’s just an airplane.” “It just shows the difference between what we used and what they used to do the same type of mission,” Marks said.